The Missionary Impulse in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800: Or How Protestants Learned to be Missionaries

In: Social Sciences and Missions

Advocates of European expansion often justified their acquisition of territories in terms of the imperative to spread Christianity to non-believers. While Iberian Catholics converted large numbers of native Americans and later Africans imported as slaves within their New World colonies, Protestant colonizers were relatively slow to embrace the missionary imperative. This essay seeks to explain why that was the case, and to do so by considering doctrinal, institutional and political impediments. It shows how Protestants did finally put missions not only to their fellow Europeans but also to Native Americans and to slaves at the center of their imperial project.

  • 4)

    John Thornton, “The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491-1750,” Journal of African History 25 (1984): 147-67; Linda M. Heywood and John K. Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 61-67. Leo Africanus, A Geographical Historie of Africa (London, 1600), 406-17, described pockets of Christian converts in Africa (in Nubia, Angola and Monotapa), as well as Iberian evangelical efforts in the Kongo.

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  • 6)

    According to J. H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 69, by 1559, New Spain boasted 160 religious houses staffed by 802 Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians.

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  • 9)

    Carla Gardina Pestana, “Cruelty and Religious Justifications for Conquest in the mid-Seventeenth-Century English Atlantic,” in Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic World, edited by Linda Gregerson and Susan Juster (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 37-57. For contextualizing Spain’s reputation, see Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religion and Racial Difference in Renaissance Empires, ed. Margert R. Greer, Walter D. Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).

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  • 15)

    Carla Gardina Pestana, “Religion,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 74-75.

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    Robert Bireley, The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999), 147.

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  • 20)

    Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590), with an introduction by Paul Hulton (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972), 25.

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  • 21)

    Walne, “The Collections for Henrico College,” 259-66; Beth Quitslund, “The Virginia Company, 1606-1624: Anglicanism’s Millennial Adventure,” in Anglo-American Millennialism, From Milton to the Millerites, edited by Richard Connors and Andrew Colin Gow, Studies in the History of Christian Traditions (Boston: Brill, 2004), 83-113.

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  • 22)

    Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives changed by Jamestown (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 156-67.

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  • 24)

    David J. Silverman, Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1600-1871 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 19-21, 51-54.

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  • 25)

    Johannes Megapolensis, “A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians,” in Narratives of the New Netherland, ed. J. Franklin Jameson, Original Narratives of Early American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909), 177-78.

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    Laura M. Stevens, The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 3, 25, 195.

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  • 31)

    Alexandra Walsham, Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700, Politics, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain (New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), treats this transition; see 49-56, 305-7, 312-15. For one result of the changed policy, see Craig Rose, “The origins and ideals of the SPCK, 1699-1716,” in The Church of England, c. 1689-c.1833: From Toleration to Tractarianism, edited by John Walsh, Colin Haydon and Stephen Taylor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 177-83.

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  • 33)

    Travis Glasson, Mastering Christianity: Missionary Anglicanism and Slavery in the Atlantic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28, 87. For work among British Catholics in Britain, see Michael A. Mullett, Catholics in Britain and Ireland, 1558-1829, Social History in Perspective (New York: St. Martins’ Press, 1998), 95.

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  • 34)

    Eliga H. Gould, “Prelude: The Christianizing of British America,” in Mission and Empire, edited by Norman Etherington, pp. 19-39, The Oxford History of the British Empire, companion series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

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  • 35)

    Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 226-31.

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  • 36)

    Daniel K. Richter, “Some of them … would always have a Minister with them”: Mohawk Protestantism, 1683-1719,” American Indian Quarterly 16 (1992): 471-84; Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities, Cambridge Studies in North American Indian History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 115-17. Guy Johnson to Samuel Kirkland, 14 February 1775, in The Journal of Samuel Kirkland: 18th-Century Missionary to the Iroquois, Government Agent, Father of Hamilton College, edited by Walter Pilkington (Clinton, N.Y.: Hamilton College, 1980), 105.

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  • 38)

    Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 2006), 122-27.

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  • 39)

    Margaret M. Olsen, Slavery and Salvation in Colonial Cartagena de Indias (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), 54-55, 72.

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  • 42)

    Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 22.

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  • 44)

    Jon Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005). Sensbach’s subtitle overlooks the many Africans in the Atlantic who had embraced Roman Catholicism by the time Rebecca’s evangelical work began in the 1730s.

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  • 45)

    John Frederick Woolverton, Colonial Anglicanism in North America (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 34, notes that when the church was most fully staffed, in 1775, the colonies from Pennsylvania to Maine had 144 churches with 93 ministers, while the Chesapeake had only seven unfilled pulpits out of 143.

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  • 47)

    James Muldoon, “Spiritual Freedom, Physical Slavery: The Medieval Church and Slavery,” Symposium: Rethinking Rights: Historical Perspectives; Ave Maria Law Review 3 (2005): 65-93.

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  • 48)

    Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 78-79; Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 21-23.

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  • 49)

     See for instance, Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, 35. On this hostility, see John Thornton, African and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Studies in Comparative World History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 2d ed., 1998), 269-70.

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  • 50)

    Robert Olwell, Masters, Slaves and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 119, 125, 138.

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  • 51)

    Knox quoted in Donald B. Cooper, The Establishment of the Church in the Leeward Islands (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1966), 39. J. Henry Bennett Jr., Bondsmen and Bishops: Slavery and Apprenticeship on the Codrington Plantation of Barbados, 1710-1838, University of California Publications in History, 62 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958), chapter 8; Glasson, Mastering Christianity, chapter 5.

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  • 53)

    Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 116-17.

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  • 55)

    Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 149-51; James W. St. G. Walker, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1830, Reprints in Canadian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

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  • 59)

    Walker, The Black Loyalists, 169-71, 252-54.

  • 67)

    Timothy D. Hall, Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994), 129-31. This trend is apparently captured in W. R. Ward’s term “undenominationalism”; see Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual history, 1670-1789 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 187-89.

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